Grand jury looks at Grace 

According a statement W.R. Grace released Friday, Oct. 29, the Maryland-based vermiculite mining company responsible for more than 200 asbestos-related deaths in Libby is under investigation by a federal grand jury in Montana for violations of federal environmental laws.

“Grace believes that the investigation is related to its former vermiculite mining and processing activities in Libby,” the statement read, in part.

Libby asbestos victims’ advocate Gayla Benefield has been waiting for this federal investigation for about 10 years.

“I think it’s long overdue, considering what’s gone on here,” says Benefield, who watched both of her parents die from asbestos-related diseases, and now, along with her husband and other family members, has an asbestos-related disease herself.

“There are still people in this community that don’t believe Grace could have caused this problem, despite all that we now know, so this does enhance our credibility,” Benefield says.

Neither a W.R. Grace spokesman nor Montana U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer would comment on the investigation. If the investigation were to result in a trial, the case would likely wind up before Donald Molloy, chief judge of U.S. District Court for Montana, unless a change of venue were requested and granted. Molloy has previously ruled that W.R. Grace must pay the government $54.5 million for Libby cleanup costs.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Nov. 1, Libby City Council approved a $250,000 allocation from a federal grant to go toward the Center for Asbestos-Related Disease (CARD) clinic. CARD’s clinical coordinator, Pat Cohan, says the funds will be used to create an electronic database and library so that other asbestos researchers across the country—such as Dr. Stephen Levin, medical director of the Mount Sinai Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine in New York City—can share and help analyze data collected in Libby. Cohan believes this will help researchers accelerate progress on asbestos diseases.

Between the new clinic technology and the new investigation, Benefield, for one, seems happier than she’s been in some time. “It’s been a long five years, but things have a way of working out,” she says.

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